Original posted in BikeZone July 4th, 2012.
If you live in one of the global smog zones you have been paranoid about pollution, then this post is for you. Wearing a good air face mask has played its role in sustaining my interest in commuting over the years — so I buy a mask if it seems interesting to me and give it a spin. This is my review of the popular ones available in Bangalore — Respra, Neomask (blue), Totobobo (“Original” model) and Totobobo (“SuperCool” model). I’ve tried other locally available ones, but they didn’t seem worthy of mention and/or aren’t suited for cycling. The best way to beat pollution is to ride during non-peak hours and through roads with less traffic (by-lanes). But more often than not, we find ourselves having to take main roads amidst bad traffic — so masks are our only way out until the overall air quality improves. Also, this review is just a personal opinion — what works for me may not work for you and vice-versa.
Here is a photo of the Totobobo particulate filters that I shot 2 years ago — this was taken after ~10 hours of saddle time in Bangalore traffic. Unused, these filters were cotton white in color and then turned jet black! If you’ve not been wearing a mask while commuting, these pollutants would be inside your lungs — that’s good reason to wear a mask in our cities.
Respra Air Mask
First, the Respra mask – costs around Rs.150, purchased from BOTS in Bangalore:
This happens to be amongst the popular ones available today and is priced very well at Rs150 or so. My initial impression was that it was extremely effective in curbing out the pollution. I could not smell the fumes anymore with this mask on — even when I was riding behind that auto rickshaw emitting plumes of blue smoke from its behind. BUT, it didn’t take me long to realize that Respra is not suited for cycling at all — it cuts out much needed air too. A couple of days since I started using this, I ended up with splitting headaches after my ride (including rides which were done at a slow sub-15kmph pace). That was a good enough indicator that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to chew on. If you have a Respra, I’d encourage you to take it off in the middle of a ride (perhaps in a not-so-polluted zone). The sudden gush of all that air will tell you how much air you were being deprived off in the first place.
Let’s look at the insides of the Respra mask:
Apart from the inner/outer cloth covering, there are multiple layers (atleast 3) of non-woven fabric and an activated carbon filter in the Respra — all these layers are very effective to cut out smoke when you’re puttering around in an auto-rickshaw or on a motor-bike, but offer a little too much resistance for cycling in my opinion. I’ve seen a few cyclists say how good Respra is — OTOH, I’ve seen many more cyclists who say, like me, that it cuts out too much air (and causes headaches in my case). YMMV.
Respra – Pros:
1. Very effective at blocking pollution with its activated carbon cloth — great for low intensity breathing activity such as riding motorbikes, riding in a rickshaw, etc.
2. Fits pretty well with a ear loop design. Easy to put it on and take it off.
3. Built-in metal clip can be folded over your nose bridge — prevents fogging of sun glasses.
4. Washable and lasts for about 4 months — according to the manufacturer, Chlorosoul. (I didn’t use it for more than a few days).
5. Great pricing at around Rs.150.
Respra – Cons:
1. Blocks out the air along with the pollution — not suited for a heavy breathing activity like cycling (in my opinion). Piece-de-resistance one too many!
2. The inner cloth gets quite wet with sweat, sticks to your face and thus may get uncomfortable for cycling commutes that last over half an hour.
3. Not the best at dissipating heat.
Would I recommend Respra to cyclists?
Totobobo Air Mask – Original
Next, the Totobobo (original) mask (the ‘original’ is the bigger of the two totobobo masks in the photo above) – costs around $30.
I’ve been using this for two years and I like it a lot. This mask can be custom cut for one’s face and fits better than the others, if you cut it right. It gives you excellent feedback in terms of how dirty your filters are — easy to know when you need to replace the filters. The only trouble is that I can still smell the fumes just a little bit (but it looks like Totobobo is now selling what they call “matrix” filters which is supposed to cut down on the smelly smoke too — haven’t given these filters a try yet). The replacement filters are not exactly cheap (~90Rs for a pair when I last got them), but are still great value for money considering that your lungs are well protected. I replace my filters once every two weeks (10 hours of saddle time in Bangalore traffic). Also, while donning these, you’ll know you have a good seal if the mask “pulses” like a heart when you breathe in/out. When you inhale, most air comes in via the filters and some gets in through the side depending on how good your seal is. Exhaling means that your mask lets some of the air through the filters and some through your the gap in your nose bridge as well as the sides — so you ought to cut the nose bridge carefully when you “fit” the mask to your face (and we think fitting bicycles is our only worry). More sweat/moisture on your face ensures a better seal — which means the seal may not be perfect for the first few minutes of your ride and then it seals better. You could sprinkle some water on your face before you start a ride, but that may not always be possible.
Totobobo (Original) – Pros:
1. Good at blocking pollution with very low resistance — great for cycling (even when you push it).
2. Fits well on your face with its elastic strap — you’ll get used to putting it on/off quickly, in a couple of days.
3. Portable (fits in your saddle bag) — Particularly useful when you ride into the city, after a long ride out of it.
4. The plastic mask is washable and lasts for years. The elastic strap on mine cut after a year and I got a new strap from BOTS.
5. Good at dissipating heat and does not feel “wet” while wearing it — comfortable for commutes that last over an hour.
Totobobo (Original) – Cons:
1. I can still smell some fumes with the 92% and 94% particulate filters. These filters seem to be “statically charged” to trap particulate matter according to their website. The filters evidently work well, but they have no activated carbon like the other masks in this review. But, this opinion of one may change with the matrix filters.
2. The absence of a nose clip means that it fogs up my glasses often when I breathe out. Totobobo’s website suggests that you tighten the upper strap and loosen the lower strap so the hot air vents out from below, instead of your nose bridge — but that breaks the seal. Or, you could avoid this problem altogether with the Totobobo SuperCool model.
3. I need to keep my mouth open all the time to ensure a good seal (even when breathing only through the nose). Closing the mouth may break the seal and let polluted air in through the sides (not much though). This is not as bad a problem as it sounds though.
4. Since the mask sits tight on your face, it leaves an impression on the skin. This impression stays for about 10 minutes once you take it off — no big deal.
Btw, the totobobo website offers some useful tips on fitting the mask to your face:
Would I recommend TotoBobo (Original) to cyclists?
Totobobo Air Mask – SuperCool
The Totobobo SuperCool (or mini) mask — This covers the mouth only – costs around $30.
I think the Totobobo folks designed this mask exclusively for cycling since the original model fogs up one’s glasses. Totobobo suggests that you breathe in with the mouth and breathe out with the nose — with the promise that “you’ll get used to it”. I was skeptical, but curious enough to try it out. I rode with the mask for a week and gave up on it completely. There is a reason we humans evolved with noses and this is a complete departure from traditional breathing. While breathing heavily, I tend to use both my nose and my mouth. Largely, breathing is a sub-conscious activity — the SuperCool makes it a conscious activity requiring a lot of effort on my part to get it right — i.e. inhale with the mouth and exhale with the nose. If I stop thinking about it, I go back to breathing polluted air since I’m breathing with my nose again.
TotoBobo (SuperCool) – Pros:
1. Does not fog up the glasses.
2. You can breathe in non-filtered “air” through the nose in non-polluted areas — but hey, you’re lucky if you find such routes during your commute where a mask is not necessary.
3. Seals better than the Totobobo Original since the nose bridge doesn’t get in the way.
TotoBobo (SuperCool) – Only 1 con:
1. Inhaling via the mouth and exhaling via the nose just doesn’t seem right — I wasn’t able to get used to this pattern and thus gave up on this mask.
Would I recommend TotoBobo (SuperCool) to cyclists?
Btw, I tried a DIY improv on the totobobo filters — use the ACC cloth from the Respra on the totobobo (see picture below). I see no perceivable increase in the resistance, but a perceivable reduction in terms of smelling the fumes. You may want to try it and see how it works for you. ACC cut into two pieces from a single respra mask is enough to cover both filters on the totobobo. If you cut it into too small a piece, there is a good chance that the ACC would slide out when you inhale. You could also DIY this with the Neomask’s ACC filter (which is supposed to last for a few more weeks than the totobobo filter).
Neomask Air Face Mask
The Neomask – Costs around $28.
This mask has a striking “similarity” to the Respro (ends with an ‘o’) mask made/available in the UK. Anyways, since something similar to Respro was available for purchase on ebay.in, I got one for myself and this is now my preferred mask for short commutes in the city. The mask itself has 3 components — the outer (blue/black) neoprene cover with a velcro strap that goes around your neck, the inner activated carbon filter and the one-way valves that open only when you exhale.
Neomask’s activated carbon filter seems to be just that — only the ACC and no other material sandwiched in between (unlike the Respra which has way more layers along with the ACC). I’d rate the resistance in between the totobobo (very low) and the respra (very high) — enough for me to ride at an average speed of 20kmph without any breathing issues or headaches. But the best part is that I don’t smell any fumes with this mask. FWIW, the Darth Vader looks makes you appear more intimidating on the road — big help for a vulnerable cyclist!
Neomask – Pros:
1. Great at blocking pollution with low resistance — suited for cycling.
2. The outer neoprene covering ensures that air does not get in through the sides (unlike the totobobo) — I don’t smell the fumes when riding with this mask.
3. The ACC filter has a one-way valve — almost no resistance when you exhale. (The totobobo offers very little resistance when exhaling as well. So, not much of a difference here).
4. I like Neomask’s velcro based strap over totobobo’s rubber-like strap. Easier to go on/off your face.
5. The ACC filter lasts longer than the totobobo – 4 months according to the manufacturer. I replace mine once a month since I don’t wash them (I’m skeptical of their performance after a wash).
6. No fogging of glasses since we have a metal clip that can be folded around the nose bridge.
Neomask – Cons:
1. The mask might get uncomfortable over long commutes (say 1hr) if you sweat a lot.
2. The mask in its original avatar may not fit everyone. The strap on mine was too big. Took it to a local tailor and shortened the straps with a fold/stitch. Note that this problem is something that can be fixed.
3. The protruding velcro used to brush against the skin on my neck (this hurt quite bad when I turned my head left/right). A solution is to cut out the bottom stitch of the (unnecessarily big) velcro strap as shown below:
Would I recommend Neomask to cyclists?
According to me, it basically comes down Totobobo vs Neomask and the choice can be strictly personal as with other things like Nikon vs Canon, Emacs vs Vim — pick your sides I personally use Neomask these days since my commutes are short (30 min), but in dense traffic (needs more filtering) and they don’t fog my glasses. I’m not throwing away my totobobo either. And, if you’re really curious, I do pick Nikon over Canon and emacs over Vhim
Phew! So, that was a long review. Hopefully you now have a better idea to protect your lungs whilst commuting to work on a bike. If you have come across better masks or have better DIY solutions than the ones mentioned above, please do share them. Thanks for reading through this.